Felix Castor is a freelance exorcist, and London is his stomping ground. It may seem like a good ghostbuster can charge what he likes and enjoy a hell of a lifestyle, but there's a risk: sooner or later he's going to take on a spirit that's too strong for him.
When Castor accepts a seemingly simple ghost-hunting case at a museum in the shadowy heart of London, what should have been a perfectly straightforward exorcism is rapidly turning into the Who Can Kill Castor First Show, with demons and ghosts all keen to claim the big prize.
But that's business as usual: Castor knows how to deal with the dead. It's the living who piss him off. . .
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The Devil You Know
By Mike Carey
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2006 Mike Carey
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNORMALLY I WEAR A CZARIST ARMY GREATCOAT-the kind that sometimes gets called a paletot-with pockets sewn in for my tin whistle, my notebook, a dagger, and a chalice. Today I'd gone for a green tuxedo with a fake wilting flower in the buttonhole, pink patent-leather shoes, and a painted-on mustache in the style of Groucho Marx. From Bunhill Fields in the east, I rode out across London-the place of my strength. I have to admit, though, that "strong" wasn't exactly how I was feeling; when you look like a pistachio-ice-cream sundae, it's no easy thing to hang tough.
The economic geography of London has changed a lot in the last few years, but Hampstead is always Hampstead. And on this cold November afternoon, atoning for sins I couldn't even count and probably looking about as cheerful as a tricoteuse being told that the day's executions have been canceled due to bad weather, Hampstead was where I was headed.
Number 17, Grosvenor Terrace, to be more precise: an unassuming little early Victorian masterpiece knocked off by Sir Charles Barry in his lunch hours while he was doing the Reform Club. It's in the books, like it or not; the great man would moonlight for a grand in hand and borrow his materials from whatever else he was doing at the time. You can find his illegitimate architectural progeny everywhere from Ladbroke Grove to Highgate, and they always give you that same uneasy feeling of déjà vu, like seeing the milkman's nose on your own firstborn.
I parked the car far enough away from the door to avoid any potential embarrassment to the household I was here to visit and managed the last hundred yards or so burdened with four suitcases full of highly specialized equipment. The doorbell made a severe, functional buzzing sound like a dentist's drill sliding off recalcitrant enamel. While I waited for a response, I checked out the rowan twig nailed up to the right of the porch. Black and white and red strings had been tied to it in the prescribed order, but still ... a rowan twig in November wouldn't have much juice left in it. I concluded that this must be a quiet neighborhood.
The man who opened the door to me was presumably James Dodson, the birthday boy's father. I took a strong dislike to him right then to save time and effort later. He was a solid-looking man, not big but hard-packed, gray eyes like two ball bearings, salt-and-pepper hair adding its own echoes to the gray. In his forties, but probably as fit and trim now as he had been two decades ago. Clearly, this was a man who recognized the importance of good diet, regular exercise, and unremitting moral superiority. Pen had said he was a cop-chief constable in waiting, working out of Agar Street as one of the midwives to the government's new Serious Organized Crime Agency. I think I would have guessed either a cop or a priest, and most priests gratefully let themselves go long before they hit forty; that's one of the perks of having a higher calling.
"You're the entertainer," Dodson said, as you might say, "You're a motherless piece of scum and you raped my dog." He didn't make a move to help me with the cases, which I was carrying two in each hand.
"Felix Castor," I agreed, my face set in an unentertaining deadpan. "I roll the blues away."
He nodded noncommittally and opened the door wider to let me in. "The living room," he said, pointing. "There'll be rather more children than we originally said. I hope that's okay."
"The more the merrier," I answered over my shoulder, walking on through. I sized the living room up with what I hoped looked like a professional eye, but it was just a room to me. "This is fine. Everything I need. Great."
"We were going to send Sebastian over to his father's, but the bloody man had some sort of work crisis on," Dodson explained from behind me. "Which makes one more. And a few extra friends ..."
"Sebastian?" I inquired. Throwing out questions like that is a reflex with me, whether I want answers or not; it comes from the work I do. I mean, the work I used to do. Sometimes do. Can live without doing.
"Peter's stepbrother. He's from Barbara's previous marriage, just as Peter is from mine. They get along very well."
"Of course." I nodded solemnly, as if checking out the soundness of the familial support network was something I always did before I started in on the magic tricks and the wacky slapstick. Peter was the birthday boy-just turned fourteen. Too old, probably, for clowns and conjurors and parties of the cake-and-ice-cream variety. But then, that wasn't my call to make. They also serve those who only pull endless strings of colored ribbon out of a baked-bean tin.
"I'll leave you to set up, then," Dodson said, sounding dubious. "Please don't move any of the furniture without checking with me or Barbara first. And if you're setting up anything on the parquet that might scratch, ask us for pads."
"Thanks," I said. "And mine's a beer whenever you're having one yourself. The term 'beer' should not be taken to include the subset 'lager.'"
He was already heading for the door when I threw this out, and he kept right on going. I was about as likely to get a drink out of him as I was to get a French kiss.
So I got down to unpacking, a task that was made harder by the fact that these cases hadn't moved out of Pen's garage in the last ten years. There were all sorts of things in among the stage-magic gear that gave me a moment's-or more than a moment's-pause. A Swiss Army penknife (it had belonged to my old friend Rafi) with the main blade broken off short an inch from the tip; a homemade fetish rigged up out of the mummified body of a frog and three rusty nails; a feathered snood, looking a bit threadbare now, but still carrying a faint whiff of perfume; and the camera.
Shit. The camera.
I turned it over in my hands, instantly submerged in a brief but powerful reverie. It was a Brownie Autographic No. 3, and all folded up as it was, it looked more like a kid's lunch box than anything else. But once I flipped the catches, I could see that the red-leather bellows was still in place, the frosted viewfinder was intact, and (wonder of wonders) the hand-wheeled stops that extended the lens into its operating position still seemed to work. I'd found the thing in a flea market in Munich when I was backpacking through Europe. It was nearly a hundred years old, and I'd paid about a quid for it, which was the whole of the asking price, because the lens was cracked right the way across. That didn't matter to me-not for what I principally had in mind at the time-so it counted as a bargain.
I had to put it to one side, though, because at that moment the first of the party guests were shepherded in by a very busty, very blonde, very beautiful woman who was obviously much too good for the likes of James Dodson. Or the likes of me, to be fair. She was wearing a white bloused top and a khaki skirt with an asymmetric hang, which probably had a designer name attached to it somewhere and cost more than I earned in six months. For all that, though, she looked a touch worn and tired. Living with James Supercop would do that to you, I speculated; or, possibly, living with Peter, assuming that Peter was the sullen streak of curdled sunlight hovering at her elbow. He had his father's air of blocky, aggressive solidity, with an adolescent's wary stubbornness grafted onto it. It made for a very unattractive combination, somehow.
The lady introduced herself as Barbara in a voice that had enough natural warmth in it to make electric blankets irrelevant. She introduced Peter, too, and I offered him a smile and a nod. I tried to shake hands with him out of some atavistic impulse probably brought on by being in Hampstead, but he'd already stomped away in the direction of a new arrival with a loud bellow of greeting. Barbara watched him go with an unreadable, Zen-like smile that suggested prescription medication, but her gaze as she turned back to me was sharp and clear enough.
"So," she said. "Are you ready?"
For anything, I almost said-but I opted for a simple yes. All the same, I probably held the glance a half moment too long. At any rate, Barbara suddenly remembered a bottle of mineral water that she was holding in her hand and handed it to me with a slight blush and an apologetic grimace. "You can have a beer in the kitchen with us afterward," she promised. "If I give you one now, the kids will demand equal rights."
I raised the bottle in a salute.
"So ...," she said again. "An hour's performance, then an hour off while we serve the food-and you come on again for half an hour at the end. Is that okay?"
"It's a valid strategy," I allowed. "Napoléon used it at Quatre Bras."
This got a laugh, feeble as it was. "We won't be able to stay for the show," Barbara said, with a good facsimile of regret. "There's quite a lot still to do behind the scenes-some of Peter's friends are staying over. But we might be able to sneak back in to catch the finale. If not, see you in the interval." With a conspiratorial grin, she beat her retreat and left me with my audience.
I let my gaze wander around the room, taking the measure of them. There was an in-group, clustered around Peter and engaged in a shouted conversation that colonized the entire room. There was an out-group, consisting of four or five temporary knots spread around the edges of the room, which periodically tried to attach themselves to the in-group in a sort of reversal of cellular fission. And then there was stepbrother Sebastian.
It wasn't hard to spot him; I'd made a firm identification while I was still unfolding my trestle table and laying out my opening trick. He had the matrilineal blond hair, but his paler skin and watery blue eyes made him look as if someone had sketched him in pastels and then tried to erase him. He looked to be a lot smaller and slighter than Peter, too. Because he was the younger of the two? It was hard to tell, because his infolded, self-effaced posture probably took an inch or so off his height. He was the one on the fringes of the boisterous rabble, barely tolerated by the birthday boy and contemptuously ignored by the birthday boy's friends. He was the one left out of all the in-jokes, looking like he didn't belong and would rather be almost anywhere else-even with his real dad, perhaps, on a day when there was a work crisis on.
When I clapped my hands and shouted a two-minute warning, Sebastian filed up with the last of the rear guard and took up a position immediately behind Peter-a dead zone that nobody else seemed to want to lay claim to.
Then the show was on, and I had troubles of my own to attend to.
I'm not a bad stage magician. It was how I paid my way through college, and when I'm in practice, I'd go so far as to say I'm pretty sharp. Right then I was as rusty as hell, but I was still able to pull off some reasonably classy stuff-my own scaled-down versions of the great illusions I'd studied during my ill-spent youth. I made some kid's wristwatch disappear from a bag that he was holding and turn up inside a box in someone else's pocket. I levitated the same kid's mobile phone around the room while Peter and the front-row elite stood up and waved their arms in the vain hope of tangling the wires they thought I was using. I even cut a deck of cards into pieces with garden shears and reconstituted them again, with a card that Peter had previously chosen and signed at the top of the deck.
But whatever the hell I did, I was dying on my feet. Peter sat stolidly at front and center, arms folded in his lap, and glared at me all the while with paint-blistering contempt. He'd clearly reached his verdict, which was that being impressed by kids'-party magic could lose you a lot of status with your peers. And if the risk was there even for him, it was clearly unacceptable for his chosen guests. They watched him and took their cue from him, forming a block vote that I couldn't shift.
Sebastian seemed to be the only one who was actually interested in the show for its own sake-or perhaps the only one who had so little to lose that he could afford just to let himself get drawn in, without watching his back. It got him into trouble, though. When I finished the card trick and showed Peter his pristine eight of diamonds, Sebastian broke into a thin patter of applause, carried away for a moment by the excitement of the final reveal.
He stopped as soon as he realized that nobody else was joining in, but he'd already broken cover-forgetting what seemed otherwise to be very well developed habits of camouflage and self-preservation. Annoyed, Peter stabbed backward with his elbow, and I heard a whoof of air from Sebastian as he leaned suddenly forward, clutching his midriff. His head stayed bowed for a few moments, and when he came up, he came up slowly. "Fuckwit," Peter snarled, sotto voce. "He just used two decks. That's not even clever."
I read a lot into this little exchange-a whole chronicle of casual cruelty and emotional oppression. You may think that's stretching an elbow in the ribs a touch too far, but I'm a younger brother myself, so the drill's not unfamiliar to me. And besides that, I knew one more thing about birthday boy than anybody else here knew.
I took a mental audit. Yes. I was letting myself get a little irritated, and that wasn't a good thing. I still had twenty minutes to run before the break and the cold beer in the kitchen. And I had one surefire winner, which I'd been meaning to save for the finale, but what the hell. You only live once, as people continue to say in the teeth of all the evidence.
I threw out my arms, squared my shoulders, tugged my cuffs-a pantomime display of preparation intended mainly to get Sebastian off the hook. It worked, as far as that went; all eyes turned to me. "Watch very carefully," I said, taking a new prop out of one of the cases and putting it on the table in front of me. "An ordinary cereal box. Any of you eat this stuff? No, me neither. I tried them once, but I was mauled by a cartoon tiger." Not a glimmer; not a sign of mercy in any of the forty or so eyes that were watching me.
"Nothing special about the box. No trapdoors. No false bottoms." I rotated it through three dimensions, flicked it with a thumbnail to get a hollow thwack out of it, and held the open end up to Peter's face for him to take a look inside. He rolled his eyes as if he couldn't believe he was being asked to go along with this stuff, then gave me a wave that said he was as satisfied of the box's emptiness as he was ever going to be.
"Yeah, whatever," he said with a derisive snort. His friends laughed, too; he was popular enough to get a choric echo whenever he spoke or snickered or made farting noises in his cheek. He had the touch, all right. Give him four, maybe five years, and he was going to grow up into a right bastard.
Unless he took a walk down the Damascus Road one morning and met something big and fast coming the other way.
"O-o-okay," I said, sweeping the box around in a wide arc so that everyone else could see it. "So it's an empty box. So who needs it, right? Boxes like this, they're just landfill waiting to happen." I stood it on the ground, open end downward, and trod it flat.
That got at least a widened eye and a shift of posture here and there around the room-kids leaning forward to watch, if only to check out how complete and convincing the damage was. I was thorough. You have to be. Like a dominatrix, you find that there's a direct relationship between the intensity of the stamping and trampling and the scale of the final effect.
When the box was comprehensively flattened, I picked it up and allowed it to dangle flaccidly from my left hand.
"But before you throw this stuff away," I said, sweeping the cluster of stolid faces with a stern, schoolteacherly gaze, "you've got to check for biohazards. Anyone up for that? Anyone want to be an environmental health inspector when they grow up?"
There was an awkward silence, but I let it lengthen. It was Peter's dime; I only had to entertain him, not pimp for him.
Finally, one of the front-row cronies shrugged and stood up. I stepped a little aside to welcome him into my performance space-broadly speaking, the area between the leather recliner and the running buffet.
"Give a big hand to the volunteer," I suggested. They razzed him cordially instead-you find out who your friends are.
I straightened the box with a few well-practiced tugs and tucks. This was the crucial part, so of course I kept my face as bland as school custard. The volunteer held his hand out for the box. Instead, I caught his hand in my own and turned it palm up. "And the other one," I said. "Make a cup. Verstehen Sie 'cup'? Like this. Right. Excellent. Good luck, because you never know ..."
I upended the box over his hands, and a large brown rat smacked right down into the makeshift basket of his fingers. He gurgled like a punctured water bed and jumped back, his hands flying convulsively apart, but I was ready and caught the rat neatly before she could fall.
Excerpted from The Devil You Know by Mike Carey Copyright © 2006 by Mike Carey. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This
"A funny, frightening, thoroughly absorbing thriller set in an alternative London where ghosts and other supernatural things go bump in the night-and day." -Kirkus Starred Review